The Bushcraft Field Guide to Trapping, Gathering, and Cooking in the Wild - Dave Canterbury (2016)
Part II. Bushcraft Cooking Methods
Chapter 7. Tools and Utensils
“Real freedom lies in wildness, not in civilization.”
Cooking requires equipment—everything from knives to cut meat to pots to cook it in to plates to serve it on. But to carry all that equipment would take up a lot of room and a lot of weight. In this chapter, we’ll talk about what equipment you really need, how you can lighten your load, and what tools and utensils you can actually make from materials in your environment.
Almost any tool you could possibly need for processing and cooking food can be made from the landscape in a pinch for sure. However, the most difficult to make—especially depending on local resources and skill level—are cutting tools and containers. Peripheral items, from cutting boards to spoons and spatulas, are easy enough to improvise if you need to.
Cooking Equipment Materials
Before we get into actually choosing and using containers, we should discuss material types a bit to have a better understanding of the pros and cons depending on the situation and the way we are using it. Obviously we can fashion utensils from natural materials and improvise cookware from cans, which we’ll describe later in this chapter. But for this discussion, let’s start off with talking of dedicated containers we may carry for cooking that are bought new or used and the types of materials they are made from.
We will not speak to cooking with tin and copper in this book although for re-enactment purposes they are a viable option. However, brass buckets make a good addition if you can’t afford the heavy stainless steel kind. Brass buckets can often be found at estate sales and antique malls at reasonable prices.
The biggest advantage to cast iron is even heating. It takes time to heat this material but it retains heat well and cooks food evenly due to this property. Cold spots caused by a sudden change in wind direction will be rare if ever. Lots of great cookware is made from cast iron, from ovens to pans, griddles, and biscuit and bread pans.
One of things most often carried in westward expansion where wagons were available was the family's cast iron, especially the Dutch oven. Because these come in many sizes from 1 quart to as large as 14" across, they can be fitted well to your needs and form of conveyances.
The biggest downside from a traveling standpoint is weight. Cast iron also requires a certain amount of care for it to maintain its seasoning and keep food from sticking.
Sheet steel, both thick and thin, has been used for making cookware since as long as it has been available. Steel is generally lighter than cast iron but still heavy unless the gauge is thin. Many nice old cold-handle skillets are available; they make great camp cooking tools that weigh very little compared to cast iron and will season much like cast iron, since they’re made of a porous metal. Rust is the main enemy of this material (much like cast iron) so some care must be taken to maintain it.
Enameled cookware came to the U.S. around 1850. Americans began to own enamel-lined culinary utensils, but they were very plain—nothing like the colourful mottled surfaces that were yet to come. The Stuart & Peterson foundry in Philadelphia was making enamel-lined cast-iron pots in the 1860s.
Enamelware is an iconic part of camp cooking, and it is still as viable an option today as it was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is lightweight, easy to clean, transfers heat well, and has few drawbacks. The main issue is the chipping that occurs from abuse. But drinking vessels from this material are hard to beat for a good cup of morning coffee. It can be found in good condition, is cheap enough, and will last a lifetime if cared for.
An improvement over carbon steel in both strength and rust resistance, stainless is by far one of my personal favorites for camp cookware. It will never cook as well as cast iron in my opinion, but the tradeoff in terms of weight and maintenance alone gives it high marks for use over time and seasons.
It transfers heat fairly well, although not as well as cast iron. While camping I often use sand straight from the creek bed to scrub my stainless steel, and it is none the worse for wear. Stainless steel is getting less and less expensive, so it is generally very affordable. There are very fancy pieces on the market that combine stainless steel with copper or aluminum bottoms for better heat transfer but these are not necessary for simple camp meals.
Let me first say that until I see conclusive research that cooking in aluminum has major issues on health I will continue to use it. However, each person should make his or her own judgments about this material. It has so many advantages from a weight and cost standpoint it is hard to ignore. Hundreds of thousands of Boy and Girl Scouts have cooked with aluminum cook sets for the past 80-plus years; these sets are readily available and cheap to buy.
Aluminum has fantastic conductivity and is very durable and lightweight. Modern anodized aluminum takes away the concerns of health risks, is inexpensive to buy, and gives a helpful nonstick surface to cook on as well. The only issue is from scratching, as with most other nonstick coatings.
There are even Dutch ovens made from aluminum that are a third the weight of cast iron. Aluminum transfers heat very well, so coffee cups of this material make drinking hot coffee a dangerous game.
Titanium is the latest and greatest material for camp cookware, but is it the best? In my opinion this fantastic metal, used for making the lightest of modern cookware, is a great resource. If you are counting every ounce in the pack, that is where the advantages begin and end for me. The drawbacks are that titanium is very expensive, tends to warp in the direct heat of a campfire, and it does not cook evenly at all. Like aluminum, it’s a good heat conductor so it heats too fast and cools too fast for cooking.
For simply cooking, like preparing a prepackaged mix with water meal, and combined with a fuel-based camp stove, they have their place for sure, but for actual camping and bushcraft, I feel the expense far outweighs the usefulness.
Let’s first discuss the minimum equipment you need and how you can make one item serve several purposes. A water bottle and nesting cup of metal will prepare a lot of food for one person, and a good belt knife will help with processing both food and fire fuels. Some water bottles that have cups also come with a lid for the cup and have been further developed to allow the cup to be suspended by a makeshift bail, becoming a small pot.
You can use a flattened stick to stir anything in a simple one-pot meal and a forked green stick will suffice for a fork. If you don’t want to improvise a utensil, you can carry a spoon easy enough. If you want to carry a fork as well, this takes little room and there are plenty of combination spoon/fork utensils on the market. With this minimal kit, you can make any of the one-pot recipes in this book by adjusting ingredient levels, or you can easily prepare a few packaged foods into several different meals. For traveling light and a single person on the trail, this kit is hard to beat for a weekend outing. See Figure 7.1 for an example of a bottle kit with nesting cup that can be used as a bush pot.
Figure 7.1 Bottle kit
For a longer stay or if you have an extra person along, a communal pot that’s a bit larger will come in handy—for heating water if nothing else. Something in the 2-quart range is good. This can be a commercial bush-type pot with lid and a bail handle that allows it to be hung over the coals. A simple stainless milking bucket will also work well—milking buckets also have bail handles but no lids.
To me the best folding cook sets are always the plain BSA aluminum sets with the handle that holds the unit together and a wingnut that secures it.
Single-pot cooking has been very popular for a long time both from an ease of cleanup and prep standpoint, but also from the necessity of only carrying one container for cooking when trail hiking, camping, or trekking. The one pot can range from a simple #10 can and a bailing wire bail (handle) to a bucket of some sort or even a readymade bush pot or small cylindrical coffeepot. Any of these apparatus will work, giving you many advantages. A larger pot can make it easier to carry water to camp, boil that water for disinfection, and cook anything from coffee or tea to simple one-pot meals that can be adapted from almost any foods available.
Single-container cooking can also be done in a pan or skillet but to carry these without the pot is a bit counterintuitive to be honest as it negates the larger capacity for boiling water in camp. However combining the two (pot and skillet) gives you a fantastic variety of meals that you can accomplish, and if the pan nests somehow to create a lid you have a further advantage.
The Dutch Oven
The most famous of the one-pot meal makers is the Dutch oven, and these prized items, passed on from generation to generation, are the king of camp cooking. There is nothing you can make on the stove or in the oven at home that cannot be accomplished with a good Dutch oven.
If you are unfamiliar with it, a Dutch oven is a cast-iron pot with a lid and usually a bail. The originals had no legs nor did they have a recessed lit but more often had a domed lid and were used for cooking at the hearth for most baking needs.
Later in the Colonial period, the new style of Dutch oven with legs was created. We often call it the camp Dutch oven. The legs make placing coals under the pot easier. You can place cooking coals on top of the lid for more even cooking and baking.
Picking Up a New or Used Dutch Oven
Finding a new Dutch oven is an easy enough task. Brands like Lodge have been making them in the U.S. since 1896. There are also many good brands of antique ovens from Wagner to Griswold, but many of these can be costly investments depending on rarity and size or type. My recommendation would be to buy a new one, as the investment is smaller until you find the style and size you like best. Once you have determined your preference, you can often find the more expensive versions at flea markets and sales and sometimes find a great deal on them as well.
Things to look out for are pits from rusting. Surface rust is easy to fix, but pits in the material are another story. When buying new, check to be sure the surfaces are smooth, especially on the inside, and there are no foundry blemishes. Check for even wall thickness throughout the sides of the pot as well as the lid rim if you are buying a camp-style oven.
If it has legs, ensure that these are not hollow legs that will gather dirt inside and eventually rust. Make sure it has a good, heavy bail and that the lid is a good fit. It should rotate easily on the oven but not have enough side-to-side movement that a gap can be seen.
Pros and Cons of Additional Cooking Equipment
The main thing to remember is that all cooking gear is added weight, and that weight could be taken up by foodstuffs to prepare in case the hunting, fishing, or trapping does not go as planned. The more we can improvise, the better and the more compact the kit.
Skillets are not a necessity unless you plan to fry or brown meat possibly to add to a larger dish like a stew or casserole. Even then, meat can be browned quickly on a stick if need be (as long as it is not ground meat). Skillets do however come in very handy in a longer-term setup or when more folks are present and you plan to make fry breads or some type of fried grain meal like mush.
Now with all of that said, you can easily improvise a skillet or shallow pan from a stainless steel dish such as a dog bowl. It will fit well inside a bucket or pot, using pliers for a handle.
Some would say that it’s easy enough to carry a skillet with a folding handle so it doesn’t take up much room but it’s all relative: A solid handle is likely to be more stable and so a better choice if you plan to carry a skillet at all. Again this comes down to an easy equation of weight versus rate. How much is carrying that weight going to do for me in the end and can I get by with something else to do the job like pliers and a dog bowl?
In the end, available conveyance will weigh heavily in decisions of this type. It makes no sense to pack a skillet unless you plan to use it and can afford the weight on your back.
One thing that you may consider worth the weight especially if traveling in a group is a reflector oven. These can be purchased or made from pie pans and are a great device that packs flat, weighs little, and is great for cooking anything from biscuits and breads to cookies and other desserts.
The basis of the reflector oven is just that it is used close to a burning fire to reflect heat from under and at the same time above a cook surface to provide even baking heat. These are ideal if you want some camp luxury. See Figure 7.2 for an example of a reflector oven in use.
Figure 7.2 Reflector oven
Also called rock or pit ovens, earth ovens are a simple way to cook food and have been around for thousands of years. Basically you dig a pit in the ground, lay a fire, place stones around it, then light the fire and let it burn to coals. The stones will absorb and radiate heat, so food placed in the pit will cook. Figure 7.3 shows an earth oven.
Figure 7.3 Earth oven
Carrying In Utensils
If you plan to carry utensils in, they should be a match for the cookware you have. No, I don’t mean like matching clothes; I mean a match to the material of the cook set for better results and less damage to patina and seasoning.
If you are using cast-iron or steel pots and pans, they will have a coating called a seasoning. If you use a metal utensil on this surface you chance removing and or scratching this causing food to stick. The same is true with nonstick pots and pans—the nonstick coating can easily be scratched. However, this is not a worry with stainless steel and aluminum pots and pans. Although aluminum will become scratched from steel utensils, softer metals won’t hurt it. It is really common sense; you don’t want a utensil harder than the cook surface, so match them to what’s in your kit.
Care for Cookware
To make your tools and utensils last longer, you have to take care of them. Here are my best tips for keeping your cookware in good shape.
Wooden Utensils and Implements
Wash clean using a very light abrasive (such as the rough scrubbing side of a sponge) if needed. Dry with a rag instead of letting them air-dry. Water left too long on wood can cause it to begin to rot. Once a month or so, rub a good coat of mineral oil into the wood with a soft cloth. This prevents the wood from drying out and splitting.
Wooden items made on the spot for use in camp that are not going to be taken out can be burned in the fire to dispose of them.
These types of metal are fairly easily cared for. Wash as normal and allow to air-dry. Water used for cleaning should always be hot if possible. When soaps are not available, boil with water in the container over the fire before the final rinsing and scrubbing. If you need to scour the surface and do not have abrasives, fine sand from the creek bed will do. Just boil and rinse after this initial cleaning and allow to air-dry.
Uncoated Sheet Steels and Cast Iron
These surfaces will be seasoned before and during use so avoid abrasives during cleanup. Scrape all remains of food from the surface with a wood scraper or a natural-material scrubbing brush. Boiling water in the container can loosen any stubborn foods left on the surface after cooking.
Once the surface is clean, wipe lightly with mineral oil on a rag. Do not let stand with water in the container for longer than a few hours if possible.
If rust appears on the surface, try to remove it without abrasives first. Implements like this that have rusted over time may require a soap-and-water scrubbing with an abrasive and re-seasoning of the surfaces for the cookware to be used again.
Clay or Fired Cookware
If these containers have a glaze, they can be treated with care as a metal container for cleanup; they should be towel dried. If they are porous surfaces and unglazed, they will need to be seasoned and treated the same way as cast iron or sheet steel.
Cooking Irons and Fire Gear
Since these implements will get lots of abuse, being left in the rain within the fire pit and then charred by fire time and again, they will deteriorate over time if left unattended. As well they’ll get everything black with soot if you don’t clean them before storing. Between uses it does not hurt to heat them up and coat them with either a beeswax-and-turpentine mix or just paint them with a high-temperature black paint. They can be cleaned by wiping them down with a disposable rag and them oiled or waxed again to build a seasoning, or scrubbed and repainted between trips. The important thing is not to let rust build up on them over time.
Tips and Tricks
· Companies like Palco made entire cook sets with nesting pots, pans, coffeepots, plates, and cups from the early 1900s. These sets can be had very inexpensively and can be broken down depending on your personal needs.
· Remember that items with multiple uses are better to carry than items that can only be used for one thing. An oven mitt is great for touching a hot pan, but that’s all it does. A pair of thick leather gloves can serve as an oven mitt and also be used to clear brush around a campfire and other chores.
· When cleaning your cookware, liquid soaps and hot water can be used for everyday cleaning (don’t use soap on cast iron) but avoid scrubbers made from any metal or hard abrasives.
· If your cast-iron cookware is new, food may stick to it a bit until it’s seasoned. Use more oil or butter when cooking to help prevent sticking.
· To re-season cast iron, clean it thoroughly (using soap if you must), dry it completely, then coat it with cooking oil inside and out. Put it in a 400ºF oven for 1 hour (place aluminum foil in the rack beneath it to catch any dripping oil). Turn off the oven and let the pan cool down inside the oven.